Essay: Does Islamic Revivalism Undermine Arab Borders?

This is an Undergraduate Essay, written in my third year.

The modern Islamic revival effort has espoused a core principle of action: the return to the caliphate. However, this dysfunctional political premise has encountered numerous problems throughout history; this paper will attempt to prove that Islamic revivalism will thrive within national borders and not under the notion of a caliphate. The evidence will be expressed by emphasising three examples: The caliphate functioned under divided sub-states and never proved to be a united entity; globalisation and the spread of international law has stifled calls for the caliphate and; the reinvention of revivalist parties within the constraints of democracy.

The idea of Islamic resurgence is a manifestation of the prophetic statement that God will send a reviver of the religion at the turn of every century.[1]  The classical motivation for revival as John Esposito indicates was to arrest a moral decline, but it was also used as response against colonisation.[2] The latter gained prominence after the official collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in 1924; groups such as the Khilafat movement expressed an immediate intention to re-establish the caliphate. More recently, this Islamic endeavour has reconsolidated its efforts citing the failure of numerous nation states which replaced the caliphate.[3] The nationalist movements in Indonesia and Iran for example, were seen as iconic failures in addressing the concerns of political stagnancy in Muslim countries.[4] Sayyid Qutb and Hassan Al Banna were seen as advocates of a sharia (Islamic law) compliant state whereby the prominence of God’s governance abrogated all other rules of law. Therefore the only satisfactory remedy, according to Islamists, was to re-establish the Islamic Empire.

The downfall of the call to reinvigorate an Islamic state is the inability to administer itself under one wholly unified body. The sheer scale of the Islamic empire, like other empires before it, demonstrated weak central governance. Albert Hourani infers that during the Ummayad dynasty the rapid expansion of the state led to problems in governance and the eventual compromising of power.[5] Mustafa Kemal, the late President of Turkey, referred to the Islamic caliphate as an unworkable system due to the vastness of the empire.[6]

It is a misnomer to presume that the caliphate was without fractious relationships; in fact, these self-interest and sectarian based differences had become apparent within a few generations of the death of the Prophet Muhammad.[7] The proliferation of this divisive mentality would cause an eventual division of power and the utopian idea of the rule of God under His vicegerent had become warped. There is a vast array of evidence to suggest that the empire operated with a decentralised authority. In the 10th century (CE) the Muslims had effectively created three near-autocratic regions, in Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba.[8] In another example, the precursor to revival during the time of Saladin required a unification of the faithful, not in belief but in administration.[9] After Saladin’s ascendency to Sultan, the efforts of uniting numerous regions demonstrated that governance was divided across various Arab regions and that these regions were defined by loose borders. As a reconsolidation of the fact that nation states were the norm, John Darwin adds that in the period following the death of Tamerlane and his vast empire, power reverted back to nation states.[10] Therefore, history has shown an apparent inclination towards division, indicating that the caliphate worked principally as a conglomerate of numerous nation states in all matters but self determination.

The existence of a common bond is used to argue against regional divisions. Nevertheless, both ummah (Islamic community) and ikwah (brotherhood) merely imply that there is a link between partisans of the faith. Feldman notes that the ummah was established from a unified belief and disassociation from tribalism.[11] Allawi affirms that borders can easily be transcended to reflect a common bond between Muslims.[12] However, despite this Koranic emphasis that, “the Muslims are one brotherhood,[13] the concept did not stifle civil war or rivalries within the Muslim population. A common bond does not necessitate the creation of a new, independent, Islamically-governed state.

Western empires employ a similar common denominator in the Kantian theory of democratic peace which states that democratic nations rarely engage in war with each other. This concept of perpetual peace has spread throughout the world through globalisation and has become an integral ideal.[14] The global idea is ever changing, especially given its influence of rapid change in economic markets and spread of ideas. There are common features of globalisation that have had an impact on the revivalist movement and these are:

  1. A single global market which has created interdependency between states;
  2. The spread of media outlets and information has helped converge on global ideas as opposed to regional preferences;
  3. Diplomatic relations between states have become more accessible and bureaucratically quicker and;
  4. Large levels of migration have interrupted a wealth of cultural ideas to propagate shared values. [15]

Globalisation has come as a huge blow to the concept of brotherhood. The spread of information, commercial proliferation and international law has helped to establish a new uniformed international character. The treaties of Westphalia reinforced the concept of the state as having internal and external legitimacy. The idea of sovereignty has changed since the end of the cold war. International imperatives introduced in the 2005 World Summit[16] compel the nation with responsibility over its citizens.[17] Failure to comply could result in military intervention by the international community.[18] The right to self determination needs to pass stringent tests in order for a state to be established. A combination of these legal advances effectively reduces the potential for the growth of a new independent Islamic state. In the event that a caliphate is established, the international community will stringently assess its ability to protect its people, therefore its sovereignty will constantly be undermined.

Conservative revivalist movements consider globalisation as an extension of imperial or colonial values. The fact that this is more an expression of the west[19] rather than a true sharing of values, means that some Islamic movements are likely to reject its overtures.[20] Sayyid Qutb categorised the world into two fragments; belief in Islam and adherence to it or jahilliya[21] (a state of ignorance). This idea has reinforced the arguments of Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ which amplifies the division of cultures between the East and the West.

In contrast, the recent developments of Islamic movements have proven that there is adequate room to manoeuvre. There has been a seismic political shift by Islamic revivalist parties in the Arab region. The move towards a democratic alternative has proved to be another significant blow towards conservative revivalist movements. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have attempted to engage in democratic elections in Palestine and Egypt respectively proving that a transition can be made into mainstream politics.[22] The tone of Noah Feldman’s assertion seems to be one of scepticism when mentioning the motives of Islamic parties partaking in democratic methods. Further to that, another debate which centres on the compatibility of Islam and democracy is one that has been reconciled in many Arab regions.[23]

Two theoretical evidences may suggest that the traditional structure of the state is inclined towards the nation state. According to El Effendi, Ibn Khuldun writes in his Al-Muqadimat that religion does not form the basis of social order; he adds that religion can have two impacts on a state; to reinforce or to erode. The conclusion to this idea is added by Abdel Wahab El-Effendi himself by stating that prophets cannot achieve success without asabiyya (nationalism).[24]

Revivalism has clearly adapted to its environment in some force, though clearly with strong Islamic undertones. Popularity of democratically elected Islamist regimes has surged substantially and successes in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Palestine indicate a huge shift in the psyche of the Muslim population.[25] This is a clear indication of the movement towards the western normative of democracy and the cultural norms of the Arab region. Furthermore, this shift has mobilised Islam as a proponent of democratic rule whereas it was previously deemed unable to develop. Islamic tendency could quite easily shift from supporting the call for the caliphate to supporting a democratised Islam as a modern alternative to the failures of pan-Arabian nationalism.

It appears as though the natural disposition of the Islamic revival is constrained within the confines of nation states. Historic evidence suggests that fractured, self governing sub-states removed executive powers away from the central government during the Islamic Caliphate. The suggestion is that revival cannot move beyond friendly borders, it has never operated in such a manner. It would be impractical for any modern revival effort to assume power without establishing a central base from which it can expand. To date, no autonomous region within the Arab provinces has been created, neither has it succeeded with self-determination and even if it tried, international law would probably restrict it from doing so. This leads to The Westphalian imperative which has effectively sanctified borders; this and other international law edicts have created little opportunity to challenge national boundaries.

Democratic parties are inherently national based organisations that do not transcend borders. Modern revivalist groups have reasserted themselves as national movements with significant religious influences. The shift towards Islamic democratic politics has proved successful for parties like Hamas and Hizbullah and they have helped to redefine Islamic revivalist movements. All of these points indicate that Islamic revivalism operates within the confines of nationalism.

Perhaps the best portrayal of Islamic revivalist development within borders is expressed by James Gelvin:

Other transnational religions have become the wellspring of territorial nationalisms… It only stands to reason, therefore, that their Islam would conform to such a world as well.[26]




Allawi, A. (2009) The Crisis of the Islamic Civilization, Yale University Press, London.

Baylis, J., Owens, P., Smith, S. (2008) The Globalization of World Politics- An Introduction to International Relations– 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Darwin, J. (2007) After Tamerlane, Penguin Books, London.

Ed-Din, B. (2002) Saladin, Adam Publishers, New Delhi.

Eickelman, D. & Piscatori, J. (2004) Muslim Politics [2nd Edition], Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire.

El-Effendi, A. (2008) Who Needs an Islamic State? [2nd Edition], Malaysia Think Tank, London.

Esposito, J. (1991) Islam and Politics [3rd Edition], Syracuse University Press, New York

Feldman, N. (2004) After Jihad, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.

Feldman, N. (2008) The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Princeton University Press, Oxford.

Hourani, A. (1993) A History of Arab Peoples, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001) ‘The Responsibility to Protect,’


Gelvin J. (2010) ‘Nationalism, Anarchism, Reform: Political Islam from Inside Out,’ Middle East Policy, Vol.17/3, pp. 118-133

Sadiki, L. (2010) ‘Reframing Resistance & Democracy- Narratives from Hamas & Hizbullah,’ Democratization, Vol. 17/2, pp. 350-376

Soage, A. (2009) ‘Hassan al Banna & Sayyid Qutb: Continuity or Rupture?’The Muslim World, Vol. 99, pp. 294-311

[1] Sunan Abi Dawud

[2] Esposito J., (1991) Islam & Politics (3rd Ed.) pp. 32-33

[3] Feldman, N., (2008) The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, p. 19

[4] Feldman, N., (2004) After Jihad, pp. 20-21

[5] Hourani, A., (1993) A History of the Arab Peoples,p. 26

[6] El Effendi, A., (2008) Who Needs an Islamic State?(2nd Ed.) p. 82

[7] Hourani, A., op cit. pp. 24-25

[8] Hourani, A., op cit. p. 83

[9] Ed Din, B., Saladin, pp. 61-121

[10] Darwin, J., After Tamerlane, p. 6

[11] Feldman, N., (2004) op. cit. pp. 51-52

[12] Allawi, A., (2009) The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, p. 6

[13] The Koran, ch. 49, verse 10

[14] Baylis al, (2008) The Globalization of World Politics (4th Ed.) p. 11

[15] Baylis, J., op cit. pp. 17-18

[16] The Responsibility to Protect

[17] ICISS (2001) ‘The Responsibility to Protect,’ p. VIII

[18] Baylis, J., op cit. pp. 195

[19] Darwin, J., op cit. pp. 7-8

[20] Gelvin, J., (2010) Political Islam from the Inside Out, p. 125

[21] Soage, A.,  p. 297

[22] Gelvin, J., op cit. p. 125

[23] Feldman, N., (2008) op. cit. p. 112

[24] El Effendi, A., op cit. pp. 44-45

[25] Feldman, N., (2008) op. cit. p. 142

[26] Gelvin, J., (2010) Nationalism, Anarchism, Reform: Political Islam from the Inside Out, p. 126

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